Evolution Vs. Genesis?


August 22, 2012 by mattfradd

Yesterday I posted an article entitled “Evolution Vs. God?” This opened up a lively discussion on the Biblical account of creation. In this article I’d like to address the question, does evolution contradict the opening chapters of Genesis? In doing so I hope to clear up some misconceptions people seem to be having regarding the position of the Catholic Church on this matter. This will be a longer post than usual so grab a beverage!

The Bible contains many different styles of writing. History, poetry, prophecy, parables, and a variety of other literary genres are found in its pages. This is not surprising since it is not so much a book as it is a library – a collection of 73 books written at different times by different people.

As such it is important that we distinguish between types of literature within the Bible and what they are trying to tell us. It would be a mistake, for example, to take a work as rich as the Bible in symbolism and literary figures as if it were always relating history in the manner that we in our culture are accustomed to.

Much less should we expect it to offer a scientific account of things. If one is hoping to find a scientific account of creation then he will not find it in these texts, for the Bible was never intended to be a scientific textbook on cosmology.

Saint Augustine put it this way: “We do not read in the Gospel that the Lord said, ‘I am sending you the Holy Spirit, that he may teach you about the course of the sun and the moon’” He wished to make people Christians not astronomers.”

The Catholic Church is open to the ideas of an old universe and that God used evolution as part of his plan. According to Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers” (CCC 283).

When it comes to relating these findings to the Bible, the Catechism explains: “God himself created the visible world in all its richness, diversity and order. Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work,’ concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day” (CCC 337).

Explaining further, it says: “Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation–its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the ‘beginning’: creation, fall, and promise of salvation”(CCC 289).

In other words, the early chapters of Genesis, “relate in simple and figurative language, adapted to the understanding of mankind at a lower stage of development, fundamental truths underlying the divine scheme of salvation.” (Pontifical Biblical Commission, January 16, 1948).

Or, as Pope John Paul II put it, “The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of humanity with God and the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God” (Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 3, 1981).

As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) explained, “The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God . . . does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the ‘project’ of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary–rather than mutually exclusive—realities.”

The recognition that the creation accounts must be understood with some nuance is not new, nor is it a forced retreat in the face of modern science. Various Christian writers form the early centuries of Church history, as much as 1,500 years or more before Darwin, saw the six days of creation as something other than literal, twenty-four hour periods.

For example, in the A.D. 200s, Origen of Alexandria noted that in the six days of creation day and night are made on the first day but the sun is not created until the fourth. The ancients knew as well as we do that the presence or absence of the sun is what makes it day or night, and so he took this as an indicators that the text was using a literary device and not presenting a literal chronology. He wrote:

“Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars—the first day even without a sky? . . . I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally” (De Principiis, 4:16).

What Origen was onto was a structure embedded in the six days of creation whereby in the first three days God prepares several regions to be populated by separating the day from the night, the sky from the sea, and finally the seas from each other so that the dry land appears. Then, on the second three days, he populates these, filling the day and night with the sun, the moon, and the stars, filling the sky and sea with birds and fish, and filling the dry land with animals and man.

The first three days are historically referred to as the days of distinction because God separates and thus distinguishes one region from another. The second three days are referred to as the days of adornment, in which God populates or adorns the regions he has distinguished.

This literary structure was obvious to people before the development of modern science, and the fact that the sun is not created until day was recognized by some as a sign that the text is presenting the work of God, as the Catechism says, “symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work’” (CCC 337).

Origen was not the only one to recognize the literary nature of the six days. Similarly, St. Augustine, writing in the A.D. 400s, noted: “What kind of days these were is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!” (The City of God 11:6).

The ancients thus recognized, long before modern science, that the Bible did not require us to think that the world was made in six twenty-four hour days.


You may find the following articles helpful:

Are Evolution and God incompatible?

Dino Deaths & Original Sin

25 thoughts on “Evolution Vs. Genesis?

  1. Al says:

    Yes, science (evolution) and faith do not conflict.

  2. Robin says:

    Okay, so this makes sense. But I’ve a question for you. If evolution is a possible answer to the means by which God created man, how does one go about the story of Adam and Eve?

    • My understanding is that we are called to believe in a literal first man and a literal first woman from whom we all descend.
      The means of their creation and their fall may be symbolic and are open to interpretation, so long as this interpretation does not conflict with the theological/philosophical truth contained within the stories.

      • Robin says:

        I guess my stumbling block about this is that if one were to take the evolution route for God’s means of creating man, then that would sort of nullify the possibility of there being only two first humans. (At least to my understanding of the theory of human evolution) Which then causes problems for the theory of evolution, insofar as it relates to the creation of man. Not sure what to think. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it really matters how we were created, but it does make me ponder.

      • tm says:

        But what exactly were Adam and Eve? Could it be possible that the first humans were had evolved enough so that they could develop reason and God, using their reason endowed them with his image and likeness? This is what some Christian authors suggest and/or believe. If this is possible, then evolution and genesis do not only not contradict each other but fit in with each other quite well. What do you all think?

  3. The writer of Genesis, Moses, intended it to be understood literally, so it is not surprising that almost all of the early Church Fathers believed that the world was created in six, 24-hour days. Origen was anathematized by the Second Council of Constantinople, so perhaps he is not a reliable source. Augustine thought that the world might have been created in one day, due to his difficulties with the creation of the angels.

    Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich saw in a vision that when Jesus was 31 years old, he said that the world had then been in existence for 4028 years. She also said that he was born in 7 B.C. which puts the year of creation at 4004 B.C. This number can be calculated from the genealogies in Genesis, as Bishop Ussher did. The ages of the patriarchs after the Flood show an exponential decrease, which is scientific support of the biological response to the global Flood event. The Flood was also understood as literal by all of the early Church Fathers.

    The Church has always taught that the Bible is without error of any kind. Genesis has always been understood as true history. It was only after 1859 when Darwin’s book came out that churchmen started to question the literal truth of Genesis. As late as 1880, Pope Leo XIII said in his encyclical Arcanum that on the sixth day of creation God took Eve from the side of Adam.

    As if in anticipation, in 1858, Our Lady identified herself as The Immaculate Conception. If she was the only human conceived without sin (excepting Our Lord who was a divine person), then Adam and Eve were not conceived. They were created sinless, not conceived by some sub-human species.

    An unbiased reading of the first chapter of Genesis shows clearly that it is incompatible with the theory of Evolution. Biologically, evolution from one kind of creature to another is impossible. Things change, but they do not change into other things. See for more.

    • Robin says:

      The Church has taught that the bible is without error, yes. As the Catechism states: “God inspired the human authors of the sacred books. “The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”” (CCC 107)

      But specifically, without theological error. Or spiritual error, if you prefer to think of it in that sense.

      If we look at this: “In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.”” (CCC 110)

      • al says:

        at some point in 14 billion years man was formed

      • But it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it – this system cannot be tolerated. For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican.


    • mattfradd says:

      Eric, a quick read of the Catechism of the Catholic Church should be enough to convince you that you are out of sync with the Catholic Church. It would seem you have two options: 1. Leave the Catholic Church or 2. humble yourself and accept her teachings. Private revelation is not authoritative, the Magisterium is.

      • CCC 289: Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place … The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation …

        There is nothing in the Catechism that says God did not create the world in six literal days. Almost all of the early Church Fathers believed that he did. Twice in the book of Exodus it says that he did (Ex. 20:11, 31:17). Natural science has nothing to say about a supernatural act of creation.

        Genesis is the foundation of the Bible. Jesus quoted from it more than any other book. If you do not understand Genesis to be literal, then there is no reason to believe that any of the rest of the Bible is either.

      • Al says:

        ccc295 We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom.141 It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom and goodness: “For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”142 Therefore the Psalmist exclaims: “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all”; and “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”143 God creates “out of nothing”

  4. Thanks for the article! This is something I’ve been looking at a lot myself. These are articles that have really help me…
    Evolution, Evil, and Original Sin

    * Polanyi’s Life’s Irreducible Structure (I’m working on Everyman Revived : the Common Sense of Michael Polanyi by Drusilla Scott which has proved to be VERY enlightening regarding science and how we know things…) You probably need to scroll down for an explanation in layman’s terms.

    Evolution and Original Sin: Where Are the Parameters Today?

    Evolution and Original Sin: How to Read Genesis 1-3

    …Basically a la Russell’s Paradox it seems creation doesn’t refer to itself…Self-reference leads to all kinds of contradictions.

  5. Rachel says:

    I like the mokey faces in the picture, they’re cute.

  6. Raf says:

    I think Eric makes a good point, which also addresses a personal stumbling block of my own: It seems as if science continues to explain away many of the divine occurrences within the Bible, forcing us to reposition certain aspects of the Bible as being meant to be interpreted figuratively, not literally. How does one know when one thing is meant to be interpreted literally and when it should be interpreted figuratively, etc.? Although I’m certain there are many truths in the Bible science cannot and will not (ever) explain, if anyone is able to shed some light on this matter to give me some peace that would be much appreciated!

    • mattfradd says:

      Thanks Raf, it’s important that you understand that this talk of Biblical genre is not a forced retreat in the face of modern science.

      As mentioned in my blog, Origen of Alexandria as well as St. Augustine were aware that the first two chapters of Genesis need not be taken literally.

      Listen also to the words of St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote in De Potentia Dei:

      “The human body was not brought into actual existence in those six days, as neither were the bodies of other animals, but only in shape of seed-forms, since God in creating the elements, planted in them certain forces or seeds, so that either by the power of God, or by the influence of the stars or by seminal propagation animals might be produced.”

      St. Thomas wrote those words 594 years prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species.

      • Raf says:

        thanks Matt! That’s the 5th time this week I’ve been advised to read some St Aquinas. I guess it’s high time!
        If i could just ask one more question, however: What basis does the Church employ to say that some books, such as Leviticus, are not strict obligations? Is there one quick explanation or does it require study of each book and its context?

  7. Al says:

    God created the universe, evolution may have played a part.

  8. April Garris says:

    So, if the Genesis account of creation is synonymous with the evolution of the earth, then it should be logical that the evolution of mankind must follow. If this is true, then at what point in his evolution did God “breathe” into him? Or perhaps mankind didn’t evolve, but was formed from the dust of the earth, as a literal interpretation of the Genesis account would suggest.

  9. […] If you liked this post, you might also enjoy: Evolution Vs. God? & Evolution Vs. Genesis? […]

  10. Victor Sackett Jr. says:

    Evolution and Darwinism are fantastic ideas that one can conveniently use to explain what is currently observed in the world. However when one looks at the fossil and archeological record in the earth, the clear statement of that record is that all living things appeared suddenly in full development with absolutely no predecessor forms. Note the Cambrian Explosion. In the supposed millions of years of evolution, if one species was somehow to develop into a more advanced species, then the fossil record of those intermediary forms would far outnumber the beginning or ending forms. However, the fact is that there are no intermediary forms whatsoever.

  11. granny says:

    Paragraphs 390 and 355 from the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” help sort out the relationship of the 21st century evolution model to the Catholic doctrine of Monogenism (found in the first three chapters of Genesis) that there are only two, sole, real, fully-human, first parents (Adam & Eve) of all humankind.

    In CCC 355, there is this description of a human person: “(II) in his own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds;”

    Today, the evolution model has to be examined in regard to both the material and spiritual aspects of ourselves. Naturally, evolution can be applied to our decomposing anatomy; but, it cannot be applied to our spiritual soul, which is why we are in the “image of God.” Unfortunately, today we find the evolution claim that a bottleneck (reduced population) of two mating individuals could not have existed. Plus, in keeping with the material/physical realm of natural science, there is the proposal that the spiritual soul was an evolving awareness of an entire population’s consciousness of evil.

    Fortunately, for us, these two faulty theories have been successfully challenged.
    Divine Revelation trumps!

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